South Sudan crisis: a failure of a half-hearted international community?
The United Nations has issued a stark warning that South Sudan is facing a growing humanitarian crisis even in areas that had previously been stable.
With much of the world’s media focusing on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, this latest UN alert has got a little lost in all the noise, even though the UN’s top humanitarian official, Stephen O’Brien isn’t mincing his words.
“Let me be clear”, he told journalists in New York last week, “people in South Sudan are not just fleeing their homes because they need food, shelter or medical care and school for their children. They are fleeing [because they] fear for their lives”.
This sudden worsening is the result of the collapse a month ago of the truce between forces supporting the President, Salva Kir, and his deputy, Vice President Riek Machar, which also saw the killing and rape of civilians – including those seeking protection from UN peacekeepers.
South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It’s only existed for five years since breaking away from Sudan after a long, bloody conflict in July 2011.
But instead of celebrating their independence, many people have been packing up what belongings they can and trying to escape the violence.
Since the civil war between followers of Kir and Machar broke out at the end of 2013, 900,000 people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, with 100,000 more fleeing in the past month alone, mainly to Uganda.
Inside the country, another 1.6 million people have been forced to leave their homes and are internally displaced.
All this out of a population of just over 12 million.
It is easy to blame South Sudanese politicians for what’s happening – and the government’s refusal so far to agree to the UN Security Council despatching reinforcements to the UNMISS peacekeeping mission with a tougher mandate to protect civilians, only underlines that.
But responsibility for the unfolding disaster in South Sudan can also be laid at the door of the international community.
The United States, for instance, was instrumental in pushing for its independence, but was not prepared for the long term commitment required to build a functioning state.
As so often, the UN was handed the task of helping build the new nation, but without really being given the necessary financial and political backing needed to make a success of it.
No doubt UNMISS has made mistakes, chief among them, many observers believe, has been its lack of neutrality in its dealings with a factionalised government.
However, the task it faces in South Sudan is daunting.
This is a country that lacks the basic infrastructure to function. There are few decent roads, hospitals and schools, and it has few qualified civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, police or judges.
A veteran of both the US State Department and UN peacekeeping told me when the civil war first started in 2013; either you do the job properly – by which he meant putting in the resources and time required – or it’s better not to do it at all.
And it’s not as if there haven’t been enough examples of the consequences of such half-hearted nation building to learn from.
When the UN went into to Timor Leste in 1999 as it voted for independence after 25 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, privately both UN officials and Timorese leaders said it would need to run the country for at least 10 years to train the people and build the infrastructure it required to ensure a stable future.
In the end, despite warnings from staff on the ground, because its member states wanted to wind down their financial and military commitments, the UN handed over government to Timorese politicians after only three years, and reduced its role to a support mission.
Four years later, the country descended into chaos with police and army fighting each other for control of the capital, Dili, setting back the country’s progress right back.
The fighting in South Sudan came even sooner after independence than in Timor, and has been much worse, with an estimated 300,000 people losing their lives so far.
And when the fighting starts, what work is being done to help build up healthcare systems or open schools is usually halted as it’s just too dangerous for the civilians engaged in this work to remain, and humanitarian relief becomes the priority.
In South Sudan, the UN says it needs another $700 billion for its emergency relief work and in the past few weeks, the non-governmental organisations involved in development work have had to suspend their operations.
Tending to the immediate needs of the 4.8 million people facing severe food shortages and trying to contain a cholera outbreak – as well as restoring the ceasefire between rival factions – are taking precedence.
As things stand, the resumption of the all-important work to build a functioning state and an economy underpinning decent healthcare, schools and universities seems some way off.
Yet with a greater international commitment at the time of independence, the setbacks in South Sudan might have been avoided.